For all the problematic tendencies of that infamous Internet hype (the knee-jerk following of the leader, the overhype-backlash cycle, etc.), it's nice that we have bands like Midlake around to remind us why we get so excited over great new music. These guys garnered all kinds of attention for The Trials of Van Occupanther, but it was no sudden rise to fame. Over the few years before that, the band had been honing its sound, and all the hard work came to fruition on that beautiful album. And the music world took notice. In other words, the hype was fought for and hard earned.
And now that the dust has settled, Midlake has followed up the late-August sunburst of Van Occupanther with the overcast, but no less stunning, The Courage of Others. Where its predecessor nestled down in the haze of '70s pop-rock, this new album shifts focus, moving toward a more British-folk sound. And the shift plays to the band's strengths, making room for Tim Smith's honeyed moan to shoulder the emotional load of the album, as the rest of players sing behind him, so that each line sung casts a long shadow.
Right from the first note, the album haunts. "Acts of Man," with the rise and tumble of guitars, moves quickly from warning to plea. Smith opens the record singing, "If all that grows starts to fade, starts to falter, let me inside." What is at first a melancholy demand eventually bursts into heartbroken plea, as strings and wind instruments float in and Smith turns to a full-throated howl. In three minutes, the song sets up all you need to know about this album. It's dark, it's thick with emotion, and it is living off the land.
That land, the earth itself, comes up again and again on the record. "Winter Dies" trudges through the slow shift between seasons, between the barely fading cold and the new growth coming. And on "Small Mountain," Smith sings of living off the mountain's run-off, even as he laments how "the days count for nothing." So while this album doesn't have the overarching storyline Van Occupanther did, it does create a cohesive and convincing world. One where these guys till land that produces diminishing returns, even as the weather won't cooperate. Storms continue, clouds refuse to part for the sun.
But the album isn't all slow brooding, either. There are cracks of frustrated energy that keep the band going, and keep us surprised and engaged throughout the record. The unassuming "Children of the Ground" blows open with a ranting chorus, where Smith pushed back at the miasmic worry all around him. "The Horn" breaks up the stately folk phrasings of the other songs with thundering classic rock. And the title track, which early rests on soft guitar and wind instruments, comes undone into grinding beds of guitar. As the record presses on, Smith and company pull free of the drudgery they're fighting, finding new life by the time closer "In the Ground" comes on. Indeed, winter has died.
With The Courage of Others, it's safe to say that band didn't peak with its previous record. Instead, these musicians came into their own and have created another standout record without repeating themselves. Not many bands can pull free of that Internet hype and gain a more long-lasting appreciation. And if this album doesn't put Midlake into that category, it puts it awfully close.
Eager to move away from the soft-burning 70s MOR rock meets indie-pop approach of their 2006 album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, on their third record, The Courage of Others, Midlake turn toward a more folk oriented sound and introspective lyrics that eschew the hazily drawn character sketches that marked their previous work. Again releasing on the London label, Bella Union, the Denton, Texas quintet's songs still retain the soft, dream-inducing textures that have endeared them to quite a diverse fan base, appealing to dance producers and moody teens, metropolitan hipsters and rural homebodies alike. Though aware of the necessity of cutting away new musical paths, Midlake show themselves to be quite adept at carrying with them their own graceful, pastoral sense for harmony and melancholy.
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